Chimney Sweep

The secrets and techniques of Muir Seaside’s Pelican Inn

Any Englishman who visits San Francisco will soon hear their name mumble in conversation.

“Have you heard of that pub over the Golden Gate Bridge? They have real pints and shepherd cakes. “

But the mention of Americans trying to build something “authentically British” is usually greeted with eye rolls by us snooty Brits. I’ve been to the Dickens Fair at Cow Palace, where kids run around and stare at old Victorian sex workers while bearded guys slap their thighs and sing shanties – it doesn’t bring back memories of home. I also went to You Say Tomato, the UK grocery store on California Street that is now closed and where you could pay $ 20 for a sad Lincolnshire sausage.

But The Pelican Inn was supposedly different, a real taste from Blighty; There were even rumors that the place was being moved brick by brick across the oceans from the old country. The first time I got wind of this, I made plans to visit, but those plans were a little unusual.

Every full moon, an informal moon walk is organized along the Marin Headlands, which ends in the legendary pub. We drove over the bridge one night, parked in the Tennessee Valley, and headed out when the moon rose over the high tide.

The walk is magical, from the cliffs down to the beach at Pirate’s Cove and back up again, bathed in the moonlight shining from the water under the Golden Gate Bridge. And while it’s foggy and muddy, it’s well worth the reward – a pint of Old Speckled Hen and a Guinness beef stew at the Pelican. (Though the way back, three leaves against the wind with a belly full of stew, isn’t fun.)

When I got to the Pelican at the end of this hike (named after Sir Francis Drake’s galleon Marin visited in the 1570s, later renamed The Golden Hind), I was glad the rumors were circulating about a real British pub just 10 miles north from San Francisco were true, and a few more, and I’ve returned countless times since then.

Although the Tudor-style white picture-book building was built in 1979, surrounded by a lush green lawn, it looks like it could have been in Shakespeare’s time. And the inside is even more magical – horse brass lines the walls around a roaring fireplace. Guests eat hearty stuffed quail by the fire while flutes and lutes fill the air.

But is it really more serious than Harry Potter World?

“All wood, all tables, all pillows, all curtains – everything in here was shipped from England, Scotland or Ireland,” hotel manager Amaya Cotton tells me over a pint of Pelican Inn Pale Ale (the Old Speckled Hen Barrel) was tapped.

I inspect the stately 12-foot dark wood banquet table next to us. Is the table english?

“Scottish!” she corrects me. “We may not be in the UK, but everything in here is from there.”

The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, California.

Andrew Chamings

So how did this Old World treasure come about in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, just steps from Muir Beach and the sequoias of Muir Woods?

It is all thanks to a very ambitious man named Charles Felix, who in 1978 worked with a friend on the construction of the place for over a year.

“He came from a long line of Vikings. He traced his ancestry and found that most of his ancestors were tavern owners in Britain.

I was a little relieved to find that the architect of this place was from the UK and not the idea of ​​a New World Anglophile. “Oh, he was very, very English,” says Cotton. “He moved here with his wife and four children and got to work. This country was really in the middle of nowhere back then, but he knew exactly what it should look like. ”

The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, California.

The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, California.

Andrew Chamings

It turns out that the Pelican Inn seems so British because it is. The old beams that held the steep roof and even the floors were shipped across the Atlantic. “The floors are from a centuries-old barn, so we ask cyclists to remove the studs when they come in,” says Cotton. “The bar comes from a pirate ship that was salvaged from an English port.” (I wanted to know which ship, but unfortunately, many of the secrets of the origins of the artifacts died with Felix dying in 2016.)

One of the strangest things in the tavern is the fireplace, on which the Christian motto “Fear knocked on the door. Faith answered. Nobody was there, ”mysteriously adorns the coat. “I don’t think Charles Felix knew where it came from, he just liked it,” laughs Cotton.

If you climb into the huge fireplace, you can see a dark, somewhat eerie hole in the roof next to the chimney.

“Oh, that’s the priest’s hole,” says Cotton. “Take care of your head.”

A priest’s hole was a head-high column built into the walls or ceilings of Catholic houses in England in the 16th century when priests were hunted and persecuted by Queen Elizabeth I. A place to hide your priest when the protestant queen’s guards came knocking on the door.

While this probably wasn’t a problem in 1980s California, the attention to detail is pretty impressive.

The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, California.

The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, California.

Andrew Chamings

Felix lived at the Pelican with his family and ran the pub and hotel for 12 years before selling it to Edward and Susan Cunningham, who still own it to this day. The new owners didn’t change anything – “It was perfect the way it was,” says Cotton.

(The couple also own other famous sites around the world, including the Culloden House in Scotland, which Bonnie Prince Charlie called home during the unsuccessful Highlander Revolt against the British in 1746.)

During last year’s pandemic, the pelican was closed from March to June but never closed permanently. “It was just waiting for it,” says Cotton.

When al fresco dining was allowed again, the pub became one of the few places on the bay where people outside of parklets could feel a semblance of normalcy.

This writer’s family spent many afternoons during the darkest days of the pandemic at Muir Beach, wandering back to catch fish and chips on the lawn. This dish is the inn’s favorite dish, according to Cotton, but she prefers the mussels. Liver and onions are surprisingly popular too, and as any Briton will tell you, the real national dish is curry, and the pelican is a flavorful madras among the more traditional English dishes.

If the myth that English cuisine is subpar can be debunked anywhere, it is here. And critics agree: “My favorite place in the world is the Pelican Inn,” wrote former SF Chronicle food editor Paolo Lucchesi in 2018.

Aside from food and history, the inn is also known as a cozy romantic getaway.

“We’re a huge wedding venue. The ceremony sometimes takes place on the lawn or on the patio, ”says Cotton. “And then they celebrate inside and rent out all the rooms.”

The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, California.

The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, California.

Andrew Chamings

The romantic allure of the Pelican leads to the cozy bedrooms above the pub. As you climb the narrow staircase, it feels like stepping into another time – brass lion knockers, four-poster beds, low ceilings, ornate curtains, and portraits of monarchs adorn the walls.

Cotton showed me the carved bedposts with the initials of lovebirds and honeymooners crammed into the hotel. “I encourage it, it adds character to the room,” says Cotton. “My guests love it.”

I would recommend a visit to the Pelican to everyone, not just expats in San Francisco who miss their home. And while you can park next to the pub, the Beef Wellington is worth the 2-mile moonlit hike through the sand, although I would recommend taking an Uber back.

The Pelican Inn hotel is now open for bookings and the restaurant is open daily from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM.

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